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A BOOK CONSUBSTANTIAL WITH ITS AUTHOR by Michael L. Hall TT^stranging the Familiar: Toward a Revitalized Critical Writing is / Jengaginglywrittenand deceptivelyattractiveaswell asexasperating. The early chapters, parts one and two of the book, raise important questions about the relationship between the personal essay and critical writing. G. Douglas Atkins remarks on the growing interest in the essay among academic authors and notices recent examples of a more personal style among literary critics and theorists. He praises, for example, the innovations of Ihab Hassan in Paracriticisms: Seven Spéculions ofthe Times (1975) and Geoffrey Hartman, especially in Critickm in tL· Wilderness (1980), as well as the calls from Jane Tompkins and other women writers, such as Rachel M. Brownstein and Blanche Gelfant, for a more personal voice in literary studies and interpretation.1 Atkins also comments on critical essayists who have combined a personal style with more philosophical content, especially Europeans like Georg Lukács and Theodor Adorno and, more recently, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. He examines the "essayistic" styles of these and other authors who have been able to bringa personal voice to literary and philosophical writing, and they become examples and inspiration for his own efforts Estranging the Familiar: Toward a Revitalized Critical Writing, by G. Douglas Atkins; xiv & 203 pp. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992, $30.00 cloth, $15.00 paper. Philosophy and Literature, © 1993, 17: 315-332 316Philosophy and Literature to reestablish the link between the personal essay and critical writing. Atkins is certainly correct about the resurgence of the essay. In addition to examples of popular essayists like Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, John McPhee, Susan Sontag, Paul Theroux, and many others, he mentions several recent critical studies of the genre2 and the successful series Best American Essays, under the general editorship of Robert Atwan and published annually by Ticknor and Fields. Nor would many be likely to dispute Atkins's assertion that, in contrast to the resurgent essay, much contemporary academic writing is bad; that most academic articles are unnecessarily obscure, frequently bound by jargon and technical vocabulary; and that academic authors tend to be combative, impersonal , argumentative rather than explorative, closed rather than open. Who would disagree when Atkins further observes that academic writing is often poor by design and training as much as by ineptitude? The examples he cites of a countertrend, even if relatively few at this point, are salutary and encouraging amidst the growing stacks of lifeless academic prose, much of it, as Atkins points out, written in a style at odds with its content. A return to a more literary style, a strong infusion of essay writing among literary critics and theorists would not be a bad idea. We could do worse than study the prose of Montaigne, Emerson, Woolf, and more recent practitioners of the art of the essay. So far, so good. Atkins's opening discussion of the lure of the essay after so many years in the academic desert is one of the most attractive parts of his book. But when Atkins moves beyond description and analysis into practice, the focus starts to blur. His attempts to describe the potential linkage between the personal essay and critical writing finally appear to be at odds with his later attempts to demonstrate that link in his own writing, and both of these objectives appear in danger of being abandoned when he turns to his larger purpose in the third part of his book—to discover his own voice through an examination of his personal and family history. When he reaches the book's concluding chapters, Atkins takes us off in every direction at once. He introduces an interpretation of Homer's Odyssey and rehearses his attraction to and study ofliterary theory. Along the way he also gives us frequent glimpses into his personal life: false accusations of plagiarism in his early career, a troubled marriage, a difficult relationship with his aging parents, reminiscences of failed attempts to achieve popularity in school and college. Atkins writes with clarity and feeling about all of these issues, personal and professional, and attempts to link them to his quest for a voice, a writing self, as well as for a solution to the...


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pp. 315-332
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